Restaurant patio proposed for Pigeon Park pits developer against activists

The Merchants Bank heritage building at 1 West Hastings Street recently underwent an impressive restoration. Now the owners are looking for tenants

    1 of 4 2 of 4

      A Vancouver developer is pitching a stylish new vision for Pigeon Park in the Downtown Eastside.

      “The Merchants Bank building will be restored to its former elegance and will include reclaimed limestone façade, heritage architectural elements mixed with state of art modern features,” begins an advertisement for 1 West Hastings, which is located on the northwest corner of Hastings and Carrall streets.

      “The building features high ceilings and has the opportunity for a patio, separated mezzanine and lower level floor which could be added to the main level or leased separately,” it continues.

      The property is managed by Millennium Development, which is best known for constructing much of False Creek’s Olympic Village ahead of Vancouver hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. It’s advertising 16,325 square feet of commercial space at 1 West Hastings for a monthly rent of $68,020.

      Karen Ward is an activist associated with Gallery Gachet and a former board member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). Interviewed down the street from Pigeon Park (which is also known as Pioneer Place), she recounted noticing the ad just before Christmas. Ward described it as “ridiculously displacing and aggressively gentrifying”.

      “It assumes that the area is at the end of its existence as a low-income neighbourhood,” Ward told the Straight.

      She explained that Pigeon Park has long served as a living room for low-income earners and people who live in the Downtown Eastside without a roof over their head.

      “It’s one of those central places for the Downtown Eastside to gather,” Ward said. “This is not displacement; it’s an attempt to erase that history in a very comprehensive, in a very complete way.”

      Millennium Development did not make a representative available for an interview. It however confirmed that the “patio” mentioned in the ad is envisioned for Pigeon Park.

      A spokesperson for the City of Vancouver said that because Pigeon Park is public land, any private business hoping to operate a patio there would have to apply for a permit and receive approval from the city’s engineering department.

      The Merchant Bank first opened at 1 West Hastings Street in 1913. It was a prime location. A cable car ran along Hastings and the area that later became known as the Downtown Eastside was busy with loggers passing through Vancouver and shoppers attracted by the Woodwards Department Store.

      The building later fell into disrepair. For many years it hosted a pawnshop on the ground floor and then was left vacant. Despite neglect, the City of Vancouver declared the Merchants Bank a heritage building in 2003.

      In 2014, chunks of its concrete façade broke apart and fell into the park four storeys below. No one was hurt but the building spent the next three years wrapped in scaffolding. Now that renovation is complete.

      “The Merchants Bank provides the perfect opportunity for a keen restaurateur as well as high-tech office users to join this progressive and innovative area and to capitalize on Gastown’s growing patronage and reputation as Vancouver’s culinary and high-tech core,” reads the Millennium Development listing.

      On November 5, 2016, hundreds of people gathered in Pigeon Park for a ceremony raising the Survivors' Totem Pole.
      Travis Lupick

      In November 2016, Pigeon Park took on additional importance for the community when Indigenous people raised a totem pole there. Audrey Siegl is a member of the Musqueam First Nation and board member of the Sacred Circle Society, the organization behind the Survivors’ Totem Pole. “Pigeon Park is one of the last places that the community has to gather,” Siegl told the Straight.

      “The pole stands there because we followed the amazing lead and inspiration that Bernie [Williams] had to create a memorial, a marker, a recognition and acknowledgement for past and present and, sadly, future survivors of the Downtown Eastside,” Siegl continued. “For it to just be in the way of the developer shows the huge chasm between the two communities.”

      Siegl said she recently discussed the matter with Williams, the pole’s lead carver, and relayed a message from her: “The pole’s not going anywhere,” Williams said.

      In the 1920s, the Merchant Bank's corner of West Hastings and Carrall streets served as an intersection of a rail line and cable car.
      City of Vancouver Archives

      Wendy Pedersen is a long-time housing advocate who has expressed concerns for Millennium Development’s plans for several years.

      “If there’s a high-end restaurant there, it’s definitely going to make people feel unwelcome in that park, a park that has served the community for 100 years,” she said.

      The Merchants Bank heritage building at 1 West Hastings Street recently underwent an impressive restoration. Now the owners are looking for tenants.
      Travis Lupick